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How Digital ID Is Changing Civic Space

Digital ID: Policy Brief

Digital IDs take many forms – some are mandated by governments, others are being proposed as part of “immunity passports,” and the UN SDGs have set a 2030 target date for all people to have meaningful identification. In this module you’ll learn about Digital IDs, why they matter to civil society, and how you and your organization can continue to protect your community’s interests.

Digital Identity: What Is It?

Researcher Elizabeth M. Renieris writes that digital identity is our identity-related data. In other words, it is just an accumulation of data points: while no single data point reveals too much about who we are, together they paint a pretty comprehensive picture of our lives, biases, preferences, etc.

As more data points are collected over time, our digital identities become proxies— expressions of our identities. This only becomes more true as the line between our “in real life” selves and our digital selves becomes more blurred. So much of our lives online impacts our “real” lives, and vice-versa, that every day our digital footprint is more likely to include identity-related or identity-revealing data. Moreover, digital ID credentials are rapidly becoming the norm, with most integrating biometric data (fingerprints, facial recognition, etc.) with digital identification for people to confirm their identity.

The Positives

In most societies today, identification—proof of one’s identity—is essential for daily life. Basic transactions, from opening a bank account or enrolling in school, to applying for a job or voting in an election, require some form of identification. Though the types of IDs that are needed vary country-to-country, in general, birth certificates, national IDs, passports, and drivers’ licenses, tend to be the most common. Furthermore, as access to the internet broadens and people, services, and transactions move online, a new generation of ID systems, providers, and technologies is emerging. This has created the opportunity for more secure and convenient inperson and remote transactions.

The World Bank estimates that 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to basic ID credentials. This number includes the 1 in 4 children whose births have never been registered and those whose IDs cannot be trusted because they are poor quality or are not reliably verified.

Most of these people live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. They are typically among the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society. Moreover, according to the ID4D-Findex survey, one out of every two women in low income economies does not have a national ID or other form of identity verification. People with disabilities as well as people living in rural and remote areas face the greatest hurdles for obtaining official IDs. Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure, notes: “IDs are taken for granted by those who have them. But lack identification creates barriers for each individual affected and for the countries they live in.”

In addition to this ‘invisible billion,’ McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 3.4 billion people have some form of ID but have limited ability to use it in the digital world.

Given our society’s reliance on identification, it is unsurprising that there are significant, realworld benefits to digital identification. Many organizations and governments have prioritized the development of digital ID, not to mention its coupling with biometrics and artificial intelligence, to attain a key development goal in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: to provide “legal identity for all” by 2030. Prioritization of identification has been prioritized because it is a key enabler of other SDG goals and targets, such as financial and economic inclusion, healthcare, education, child protection, good governance, and safe migration.

Brett Solomon, executive director of the NGO Access Now, writes that governments are keen to digitize identifications and other documents for their citizens to increase access to government services. In states facing mass migration and/or harboring large numbers of undocumented people—e.g. Jordan—digital IDs are a means of providing identification and other documents to facilitate their settlement, financial security, and job searches. In countries ravaged by war, internal political or ethnic conflict, or natural disasters, thousands are forced to flee their homes without their records or identifications. For their part, the private sector—particularly, banking, travel, and insurance industries—are eager to streamline processes for their products and services.

The World Bank notes that inclusive and trusted digital ID systems can strengthen the transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness of governance and the delivery of services and programs. It can also reduce fraud and leakage in government-to-person (G2P) transfers, facilitate new modes of service delivery, and increase overall administrative efficiency. In the private sector, being able to reliably and easily verify a client’s identity is critical. Digital ID systems can reduce costs associated with regulatory compliance, widen customer bases, generate new markets, and otherwise foster a business friendly environment. Lastly, digital authentication mechanisms can facilitate automated transactions, making them more secure and reliable, and ensuring that less information is required or is revealed in a transaction. The use of biometric authentication (e.g. fingerprints or facial recognition) can provide a convenient, password-free (and, therefore, more secure—at least, in theory) method of authentication.

A push is being made to build next-generation ID systems that are “good ID systems” or, in other words, that put people and their privacy at the center. The aim is to create technology and ID systems that are non-exclusionary, protect personal information, provide people with greater control over their data, and respond to the needs of population – not just the different needs of private and public sector institutions. The idea behind “good ID” is that increasing and guaranteeing the accuracy and integrity of data over time, as well as adapting open standards and interoperability, will result in the overall improvement of system utility, sustainability, and adaptability of technology as a whole.

To guide the development of “good ID”, the World Bank and the Center for Global Development created 10 Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development in 2017.

The Negatives

While promoting the positives of digital ID, the World Bank acknowledges that this technology increases the risks associated with collecting and managing personal data. When databases are digitized, the risk of breaches (not to mention, the scale of them) and of identity theft are elevated. Solomon ultimately argues that digital ID technology poses more risks to human rights than it does benefits.

Alongside privacy violations, the creation of digital IDs creates new barriers to access and inclusion. Certain populations—persons with disabilities, persons with worn fingerprints (elderly or manual workers etc.)—may have difficulty using or enrolling in ID systems that rely on certain types of biometrics.


Health QR Codes

As COVID-19 cases continue to drop for the fourth consecutive month, the Minister for Health announces that nation-wide lockdown will be lifted in 4 weeks’ time. The same day, his department releases the government’s post-lockdown plan for managing contagion levels and for reducing the likelihood of outbreaks while they continue to distribute vaccines.

Electronic Food Vouchers

Heart(h) is a nonprofit organization that caters to the homeless population in the city metropolis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have partnered with global company, Bachelorcard, to provide homeless individuals with e-vouchers for food purchases. The aim is to reduce the burden being placed on local soup kitchens and help support local businesses in the process.

Close Reading Exercise

Before the start of the workshop, please read and compare the following two articles. Reflect on the questions in the table and provide as many examples in each column as you can. This exercise should take no more than 20 minutes to complete.

Additional Resources

The Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab curated these resources for those interested in taking action about AI, digital systems, and data collection. They are intended to provide a range of opportunities. You can suggest additional resources by contacting us.

Take Action


  • ID, Identity, and Identification
    Privacy International advocates that “an identity system should give people the ability to make and prove claims about themselves without divulging any unnecessary information to any party, free from concerns about being tracked, monitored, and having data exploited.”
  • Designed for Privacy and Equity
    The Electronic Frontier Foundation outlines why digital identification “must be designed for privacy and equity.”
  • Good ID Glossary
    Good ID publishes a helpful glossary and supports a global cohort of Good ID fellows. The #GoodID approach to identity management prioritizes data privacy and security through a framework of best practices.
  • #WhyID: Add Your Name
    Sign an open letter drafted by a group of civil society organizations, technologists, and experts who work on Digital ID across the world.
  • Digital ID Toolkit for Civil Society
    This Good Participation toolkit for Digital ID was designed by civil society for civil society and explains the Digital ID lifecycle.
  • The A to Z of Privacy
    The Electronic Privacy Information Center provides a privacy glossary. Scroll down to Privacy by Topic.
  • Conference for the ID4D Initiative
    A conference organized by Access Now, Namati, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, brought together 60 civil society orgs from across the world to discuss the World Bank’s ID4D Initiative.



  • Exploring Digital Identity Through Art
    Identity2.0 is a creative consultancy that imagines and builds alternative tech futures, online exhibitions and workshops centered around people controlling their online identities. UK based, founded and led by women of color.
  • DECiDe – Digital Identity, European Citizenship and the Future of Democracy
    The Alexander von Humboldt Institute reviews their DECiDe project, in which digital identities and voting were combined in a technical prototype to examine a future in which digital identity affects lottery procedures, voting, and polling. Based in Germany, the Institute focuses on internet and society.
  • Building a Secure Digital Identity
    The European Digital Rights Initiative writes about digital identity, which “will likely become one of the most valuable commodities.”

North America


  • Kenya ICT Action Network
    Multi-stakeholder think tank interested in ensuring that policymaking in the ICT sector adopts an open, accessible, human rights based approach characterized by multi-stakeholder participation.
  • Lawyers Hub
    This article by a Kenya-based policy organization focused on providing solutions to policy involving digital ID covers what good digital ID includes, and the challenges faced in setting up good ID in Kenya.
  • Surveillance, Digital ID, and Privacy
    This article by Grace Bomu provides different viewpoints on Digital ID’s effect on surveillance and privacy. Developing Data is a project organized by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Strathmore University’s Centre of Intellectual Property & Information Technology (CIPIT), and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre of African Studies (CAS).

Learn More


  • This article by Good ID covers key terms like identity, identification, and digital ID, and the differences between them, providing a framework of best practices to help decision makers design and manage ID programs.

Technological Challenges

Intersection of Corporate and Government Roles in Digital

  • The Commons Project is a public trust focused on creating a framework for vaccine passports. It is philanthropically funded and led by public health, technology, travel, and investment experts.
  • NPR covers how India’s digital ID system collects biometric data, specifically to distribute welfare, enable movement between states, and purge names from voter rolls. It also talks about how technical difficulties are leading people to starve.
  • Biometric Update reviews different governments and countries move towards Digital ID programs, again, collecting different sources.
  • Access Now covers an amendment bill in India that would undo the highest court’s adoption of several essential principles of privacy and data security for Aadhaar. Includes links to summaries of each bill, ordinance, and adoption mentioned.


Human Rights Implicated: Privacy, Assembly, Movement, Access to Services